Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Hiatus Redux

I need to write. But I don't want to blog.

I was in Port Angeles over the weekend. So much I could say...much of it (probably) intensely personal. Saw the bulk of my relatives from that side of the family. It's been 30+ years. To see my cousins (mostly second cousins), who were kids (in their early teens...maybe) now as 40-something year olds. Some are nigh unrecognizable. Some are completely recognizable...but their lives are not. So much change.

The "celebration of life" for my uncle was about what I expected. A hell of a turnout. More food than I anticipated. A LOT of cheap beer (Rainier, or "Old Seattle Lager" as I think it's now called). Maybe. Who knows...it wasn't marked. Nothing too sloppy...decorum was observed (as much as it ever is). Respectful. Dancing was confined to the floor, rather than up on the bar.

Saw my aunts...both of them. Amazing. If you know the family history.

My kids were ogled over. My daughter played Elvis songs on the piano ("Suspicious Minds"). Diego got to shoot pool with his parents.

My wife and children had a blast. Made connections. Already making plans to go back.  

They remember the good. They didn't observe the six police car standoff/bullhorn negotiation outside my  hotel window that lasted between 3:30am and 8:30am. DV guy. With a dog. Didn't want his dog to get shot. Fortunately no shooting. I went back to bed around 6ish, figuring the cops would evacuate me if necessary. So Port Angeles. 

[for...reasons...the dog and I spent Friday night in a different room from the rest of my family. We were all together Saturday night]

The waitress at the hotel restaurant regaled us with the whole story while we waited for our breakfast order. Seems she hadn't seen that much action since a few months ago where a wedding party got a bit rowdy and started throwing furniture off the balcony, and an "active shooter" situation developed.


Sunday we drove out to Ediz Hook ("the Spit"). I stared at the ocean for a long time. My kids skipped rocks in the mirror calm Harbor side.  I could stand on those bluffs and look at the ocean and gray for days, with the Olympics at my back...gorgeous those mountains are, especially seen from Port Angeles Harbor on a clear day. Calm harbor and gorgeous mountains...grey ocean and crashing waves. Glorious, both ways.

I could live in Port Angeles. But I wouldn't raise my kids there.

In politics, Washington is considered a "blue" state. But really, the only blue part of the state is western King County, i.e. Seattle. We just outnumber the hicks and cowboys east of the cascades, the money-grubbing business tycoons in Issaquah and Bellevue, the military hawks in Snohomosh and Pierce county.  All those areas are red-red-red (maybe a little purplish recently since Trump is such an asshole). But the peninsula isn't red or blue. It's gray. Gray like the ocean. Gray like the sky. Politics? They just closed the pulp mill in 1997 after sixty years. Is my kid on meth? Pregnant? Both?

My wife at my uncle's (large) gathering: "I am the only non-caucasian here...I feel a bit intimidated." Me: "I am sorry you feel intimidated. It's Port Angeles...they don't care." True enough. By the end of the night she had decided she loves these people. I see why. They are lovable. Also heartbreaking. In much the same way as my Montanan side of the family is. But it's not the same...it's a different type of heartbreak, a different type of melancholy.

When (what we now called) Americans pushed west of the Mississippi, they were a certain type of folk. They were not "adventurers" in the D&D sense of the term. But they were an outcast of a particular sort. Well, of many particular sorts. And they settled those western areas as they could and as was convenient. Some were quicker than others. Some kept moving...all the way till they hit the ocean and couldn't go any farther. 

You see this in the Northwest...don't think of California in this regard. California was settled long before the "pioneers" ever got there (remember: it originally belonged to Spanish Mexico before being sold to the United States). Oregon and Washington were different. My father's father homesteaded in Oregon, he and his six brothers hunting and fishing to help the family survive. During WW2, they enlisted in the army where their skill with rifles earned them medals in Europe...quite a change from when they'd been bullied as youths for their German heritage. My grandfather, a staff sergeant, earned a Purple Heart in addition to his Silver Star...he joked (??) that he was shot by his own men for being a German.

I don't know why my grandfather, Ed, moved to Port Angeles. But he did, and he lived there the rest of his days. My grandmother...and her mother (my great grandmother) both left and returned and lived out the rest of their lives on that gray coastline. Of my father's generation, he is the only one to have moved away...his youngest brother just died there, and it's likely that his other siblings will as well...some day. Probably someday sooner than any of us would like.

My mother has cancer. Just confirmed that today. Rough.

Back in July of 2014, I announced a temporary "blog hiatus" in order to attend to my family. The hiatus ended up not lasting very long (less than two months before regular posting resumed) and had much to deal with the major changes going on in my life at the time...new baby, new country, new situation...and getting my head screwed on right. I've had far longer breaks from blogging since then...in 2018 I went more than four months (between July and November) without a post.

But I'm announcing another, purposeful blog hiatus. I want to focus my energies on something creative (i.e. a writing project). And my time is so limited. And that's GOOD that my time is limited (because I have an active life, attending to my family and whatnot). But it IS limited. And I really, really, want to create something.

Creation, not destruction. Joy, not melancholy.

SO...I'm putting the blog on hold for a while. I hope to be back by April. We'll see if I can stay away...the call of the blog-o-sphere is nearly as seductive as the call of the ocean.

Thursday, February 23, 2023


I need to write.

The trip to Orlando was a good one. Made it to the gate by the skin of our teeth (both ways!), but made it we did. The weather was lovely: cloudless, sunny days in the 70s-80s. Four days at the Universal parks and a couple days at Disney, and saw and rode on all the attractions we'd planned/intended. Very, very stress free for the most part, which is...frankly...amazing. No explosive arguments or catastrophes, and we even picked up a bunch of merch that we were (somehow) able to fit in our carry-ons without checking a single bag (we hate checking bags).

Lot of sickness, though. I picked up a sinus infection on the plane ride there, and it took me a couple days to get over it (but I managed). Then my daughter caught a cold the second to last day we were there and was able to pass it on to my wife and I just as we were pulling up stakes. Now back in Seattle, my daughter is on the mend, I'm, mm, pretty rough, and my wife is sick as a dog. However, tests show all four of us are negative for Covid, so there's that.

["masking" is not on the menu in Orlando. In six days at theme parks among thousands of people we saw exactly one mask on one employee (to be fair, we weren't wearing them either, outside the airport). But we saw a LOT of coughing and sneezing people, and plenty of snot-nosed children. I get it: you drop a load of cash on a Disney vacation and you're not going to skip it because you got a sniffle. Probably, I'm just germ-phobic in these post-pandemic times, but it's nice to be back in Seattle where no one bats an eye if you decide to wear a mask to the grocery store...hey, man, I'm protecting YOU, too]

Longest wait time for a ride was 2+ hours for Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. Second longest was about an hour plus for (tie between Jungle Cruise and Space Mountain). I do not like waiting in lines, but it is far easier to do with your family than solo (as I did with Space Mountain). But 2.5 hours definitely tries your patience, even with company. I mean, it really, really does. Probably a good idea to bring a cheap paperback novel. 

Most disappointing ride: Pirates of the Caribbean. I've been to Disney Land thrice in my life (once in Tokyo!) but never Disney World and not for 30+ years. Pirates has long been my favorite ride, and DW's version was: crap. I mean, it's obnoxious anyway that they've had to insert animatronic Johnny Depp into multiple scenes because of the stupid movies (at least I didn't have to see animatronic Orlando Bloom)...but the ride is SHORT...they cut out whole scenes from the DL ride, characters that were the basis for the original movie (like the bomb dude), all the undead/ghost stuff and...I don't know. It felt cheap and chintzy. And I just heard they're getting rid of the original ride at Disney Land, too, changing it for "Jake the Pirate" which is just...*sigh.*  I guess what counts as "adventure" for AdventureLand in the 21st century isn't the same as the 20th. Don't scare the kiddies with grim brutes and bloody cutlasses. Heavens!

The Magic Kingdom did seem geared to a younger audience. Asking for a beer in LibertyTown, the colonial-dressed cashier told me point blank "There will be no alcohol in the Magic Kingdom" in an ominous tone of voice. Like, none? Quite the contrast with Universal's theme parks, where the tourists are walking around with double-fisted pints from 9 in the morning. I mean, that's the way to wait in line (assuming it curls by a restroom). 

[DW's other parks...like Disney Hollywood...were a bit looser than Magic Kingdom in this regard. Though I heard from an Uber driver that a flight of beers at the SW Cantina costs $85!  Holy-moly! Most of the booze cost $12 from what I saw, but I'm not sure the additional $6 shot of rum would save that blue milk. Not my taste]

ANYway, all bitchin-moaning aside, we had a splendid time. Not sure if I'm a fan of the whole 3D/4D rides, as THOSE things made me far more queasy than ANY of the roller-coasters (especially that Escape From Hogwarts thing that the kids made me go on...twice! Nearly tossed my cookies every time we zoomed onto the Quidditch field). But those were mostly at Universal, where you could always grab a beer or a Bloody Mary to settle your stomach afterwards. And beautiful, sunny weather to stand around and drink it in (he says as he looks at the wind and hail...hail!...outside)...the fam had me cooking asado last night for Fat Tuesday and I was grilling in the pouring rain!

By the way, shout out to our hotel, the Cabana Bay (part of Universal) with its 1960s retro-modern vibe. Wow. Loved it...every bit of it. It was like a theme park unto itself (that theme being "1965"). But an extremely relaxing one. 

The one thing I didn't do much of, however, was writing. Oh, I had the chance to do some writing...mostly on the six hour plane rides. But a lot of it was just...mm...not "mean-spirited," so much as just negative. I find, more-and-more, that a lot of what I'm inclined to write about (at least, with regard to commentary) is poking holes in things that others praise...or bringing a hammer to things that others are "okay" with. 

I know, I know...I've blogged before about wanting to be constructive and positive, rather than destructive and negative. I don't really want to start singing that song again.

But it occurs to me that maybe there's a purpose for my negativity. Maybe.

Still, it's Lent and I want to practice a little restraint. Yes, I have one or two half-cocked (well, half-penned) rants waiting to be fired off, but I think I want to get a little more above the weather before I post 'em to Ye Old Blog. Just to make sure my heart's in the right place, I want to make sure my head is clear and non-stuffed.

[okay, now it's freaking snowing. Jeez]

This weekend...well, tomorrow, actually...the fam is headed out west to Port Angeles. My uncle recently passed away, and while there's no formal funeral or memorial (as my father told me long ago, folks in Port Angeles "never really took much to religion") there's a "get together" of friends and family at a (kid friendly) tavern. Very Port Angeles. 

[yes, in Port Angeles they're called "taverns," not bars or pubs, at least by the locals. Most places tend to have a nautical theme to it as well...restaurants have names like The Hook & Line or Smuggler's Landing or 48 Degrees North. My grandfather...and late uncle...ran a tavern called The Wreck for decades...]

SO, I'll be gone this weekend (again) starting tomorrow, and I've got a bunch of packing and whatnot to do before then, as well as a D&D session to prep/run. So...maybe regular blogging to resume again on Monday? I'm hoping. 

Hey...at least I didn't give up blogging for Lent this year.
; )

Later, ya' land-lubbers!

Thursday, February 9, 2023

In The Time Of Covid

So...the boy was back at school Tuesday, per the CDC guidelines. By the end of the day, however, the middle school had been shutdown due to Covid outbreak (apparently, he wasn't the only one whose been sick with the 'rona...nearly a third of the kids in his class, plus several teachers). Since yesterday we have been back to Zoom learning, and here we'll stay for the remainder of the week.

Remarkably (*knock on wood*) no one else in our home has contracted the virus. Sofia continues to attend school (I'm waking her up in about 15 minutes).

The fam is leaving town anyway for a few days: heading to Orlando to visit Disney World. The kids are at a point where they're both tall enough to ride everything, but they're still young enough to appreciate and enjoy such things. Heck, I'm excited myself...though my enthusiasm can't help being damped by the costs and stresses involved in such an excursion. Just finding a place for the beagle for the week has been a major chore. 

Anyway. I hate these little nothing updates, but I don't know when I'll get a chance to scribe another gaming post anytime soon. Apologies.

Friday, February 3, 2023


My boy has COVID. That sucks. Three years of avoiding the virus and here it is. 

Yesterday, he was a bit of a wreck. He's much better today...eating a big ol' pile of food and watching TV (in the other room) as I type this. I'm guessing he'll be ready for soccer again by tomorrow, but protocol requires he not participate till Wednesday. School he can go back to on Tuesday.

Fortunately, Diego's the stoutest of the family as far as general health and immune system, I am REALLY hoping we can keep it from passing around the household as we're supposed to travel in...mm...nine days.


Car's in the shop again...need to go pick that up today. Later, gators.

Thursday, February 2, 2023

Tiers Of Play

Man, it's been a rough week or two. Or four. January...rough this year. Been pretty stressed; if I made a salty response or comment (here or on your blog) in the last few days...my apologies.

Okay. On with the show!

[oh, wait...yeah, I changed Ye Old Blog's layout a bit. Blogger is "easy" to use, but it's a bitch to adjust when you can't access the code and the options for manipulation are limited. Hopefully, people aren't having a hard time with the new look...more apologies for any inconvenience]

Over at Prince's, there was an announcement that the "goal" for this year's NAP III contest would be to explore the concept of play/adventures for high level characters, a woefully underdeveloped area of D&D gaming. This prompted much discussion amongst the commenters...both excitement and not-a-little trepidation.

There is...and has been for a long time...a dearth of D&D game play in the upper echelons of level range, at least amongst MANY of the folks 'round this neck of the woods (old edition D&D players). Which is a tad silly, considering how many YEARS this OSR ball has been a-rolling. Why silly? Because, with regular, committed game play, getting to a "high" level in D&D doesn't take that long...assuming, of course:

A) players are getting better at playing, and
B) DMs are providing adequate, regular opportunities for x.p. (i.e. treasure)

There are two AD&D campaigns currently going on in my household: one run by me, one run by my son. For a variety of reasons (mainly sheer busy-ness) we don't get as much time to play as anyone would like...maybe a couple/three times pre month?...the boy hasn't even run us since, I think, December or November.  Today, he'll be our DM.

[ah, jeez. Just found out Diego is sick with something...has a fever. Well, that throws a monkey-wrench in everything. Add more stress to the pile!]

Hmm. Well, today he was supposed to be our DM. *sigh*  

Anyway, despite that game playing infrequently, I've still managed to get my "main" PC to 5th level and a secondary PC to 4th. In MY campaign, the players started new 1st level characters, and the party ranger (a notoriously difficult class to level up) just hit 2nd level after three-ish sessions? That's withOUT an earned x.p. bonus (his ability scores don't meet the threshold for the +10%).

If we were to play regularly (which I'd consider four to six hours per week), I'd expect all players to be hitting mid-level in two to three months. By the end of the year (always assuming decent play and participation) I'd expect most...if not all!...of the players' main PCs to be starting to see the lofty heights of "high-level."

But what does that mean, exactly: High level? Mid level? There seems to be some confusion/consternation floating around in Ye Old Inter-Webs. Some folks consider anything above 7th level to be "high level;" I saw one commenter who considered 5th level to be "high." 5th? Not much room for a mid-tier there!

I think, perhaps, some definitions could help.

AD&D is the most robust of the old school systems, and (of the older editions) is best able to accommodate ALL scales of D&D play. In fact, I would argue it is DESIGNED to do so (compared to the Basic sets which were written to introduce new players to the game, or the OD&D rules which were a "first pass" at the creation of this new hobby). Plenty of monster, magic items, powerful spells and hostile environments (planar travel, anyone?) to challenge the highest tiers of character power.  However, there are (for me) clear delineations, or TIERS, of play.

Low-level play: 1st through 5th
Mid-level play: 6th through 11th
High-level player: 12th+

These are approximations. To measure in experience points, I'd tag a good breakpoint for "mid-level" at 50,000 x.p. and "high-level" at either 500,000 or 1,000,000 x.p. (depending on the individual campaign).

My measure for this is in terms of PC power/effectiveness which (in AD&D) can generally be equated to which magical spells are readily and easily accessed by an adventuring party with a good variety of character types. 

The mark of mid-level play is the ability to access 3rd level spells...easily and readily. 3rd level spells is the category when the troubles of low-level (beginning) adventurers start to lose their sting. In the cleric section we see spells like continual light (who needs torches?), create food & water (ditto rations!), cure disease (removing rot grub, green slime, giant rats), dispel magic (handy), glyph of warding (protect your safe room in the dungeon!), locate object (where was that stairway up?), and remove curse (obviously good). For the necromantically inclined, animate dead can turn those dead orcs into meat shields and/or treasure porters, and speak with dead gives PCs good intel on the dungeon.  Dungeon crawling, the meat and drink of low-level adventurers becomes far easier with a handful of these babies every day.

For the magic-user, the spell book really begins to open up with 3rd level spells. Certainly fireball and lightning bolt become wonderful crowd clearers and monster killers, but utility spells like fly, invisibility 10' radius, Leomund's tiny hut, tongues, and water breathing allow exploration possibilities that weren't previously available. Scouting becomes easier with spells like clairvoyance and clairaudience, and protection from normal missiles makes the party's wizard much more durable. Of course, spells like haste, slow, and hold person can provide huge advantages in fights...especially against numerous lesser opponents. 

However, it's not enough that the party cleric or wizard has only ONE of these spells. To be a true mid-level party, you need ready access...enough to sustain a significant delve or session. Four to six applications of 3rd level power is what you're looking for, with six to eight being even better. Once your players have access to that level of magical resource (and are smart enough to not simply stock "fireball x3") then you can look at the group as "mid-level."

In similar vein, I peg "high level" player to approximately 12th level. In truth, with decent players (and excellent magical equipment) 10th or 11th would be a fine breakpoint, as it is the ready access to 5th level spells that denotes high level play. 

But at 12th level, the kid gloves can finally come off.

5th level magic is the kind of stuff that breaks a lot of DMs poor little noggins. For clerics, we get spells like commune, dispel evil, plane shift, raise dead, and true seeing...spells that allow intel/recon without fear, spells that remove the sting of death, and spells that can banish even pit fiends back to their own planes (woe betide the player who feels cure critical wounds and flamestrike are the cleric's best spells of this magnitude). For magic-users, we gain access to cloudkill, conjure elemental. contact other plane, hold monster, magic jar, passwall, and teleport...some of the most powerful spells in the entirety of the game. Whole dungeons levels can be cleared by means of these spells...dungeon levels readily mapped with the use of the 4th level wizard eye spell. 

But 6th level magic (obtained at 11th level by clerics, and 12th level by magic-users) puts even these to shame. Clerics gain the ability to cast heal, which not only enable the curing of insanity and the instant recovery of hit points, but can also bring a raised character back to full adventuring strength (no waiting a week for recovery!). Find the path makes the objective of any dungeon quest far more easily accessible, and word of recall gives the character an instant "get out of jail free" card to return to his/her fortress (and EVERY cleric, by 11th level should have a stronghold staffed by loyal followers).  For magic-users, stone to flesh enables a party to recover from petrifaction, while reincarnate allows the wizard to act as an "emergency cleric" if the group's patriarch has been killed. Anti-magic shell, legend lore, death and disintegrate are all incredibly useful, and no wizard should be caught at sea without control weather in the repertoire.  Just having access to two or three of these 6th level spells can greatly extend the operational range of a high level party. 

Of course, any party that has a 12th level magic-user should (assuming equitable distribution of x.p.) include a 13th level thief (or 11th level in the case of a multi-classed demihuman).  13th level sees thieves with a 99% of moving silently, and 85%-99% chance of hiding in shadows (depending on race), and quintuple damage from a successful backstab. For a thief with a +3 short sword and an (off-hand) +2 dagger...not an unheard of combo...that's an average of 55 damage, enough to bring down a 12 HD monster (say, a fire giant) in a single go.

Fighter types of 10th and 11th level will generally have AC well below zero and hit points in the 60+ range (70+ for rangers) in addition to multiple attacks, and bonus spells (paladins and rangers). An 11th level paladin turns undead on the same column as a 13th level cleric, auto-turning wights, wraiths, ghouls, and ghasts and having a decent (better than 50%) chance against anything up through vampires. And rangers at high level gain IMMENSE damage bonuses versus evil humanoids, like giants. 

All of which is Good & Necessary. As I said, DMs need pull no punches when it comes to high level adventuring parties: greater demons and devils, giants, gorgons, mind flayers, purple worms and (duh) dragons all should be available as challenges for high level parties. Monsters that would result in TPKs if placed in adventures can finally hit the table without resentment; fiendish traps and magical curses can abound. Deep forays into the bowels of the earth...or the unknown of extra-planar realms...can occur. And the DM need not fear reprisal and hostility from the players. After all, this is what they've been working towards, over dozens of play sessions. It is the very reason to play the extended Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

Okay...that's enough to chew on for now. I hope to have a follow-up post that provides some helpful hints on transitioning players from one tier to the next. I feel like THAT is (yet another) subject solely lacking intelligent discourse and explanation.
; )

A typical LOW-level party.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

An Advanced D&D Campaign

Damn. I was not going to post anything today, but this one's too good not to share. From 42 Rolls of Duck Tape:
"I've got this one player who keeps asking me to run this or that old module for him, and I keep saying that they exist as locations and he would have to get his pc to make the effort to discover and go to that place(which he finally did for [module B4] the lost city). Because I use my version of mystara that means that most of the basic line of modules are present in my world, I just don't run them as "adventurers" that I take the party on. 

"I run a setting not an adventure. I don't separate between the two. The current actions of the PCs are the adventure, they don't go from one adventure to another, going through a cycle of Dungeons and plots and whatnot. The only real thing separating "adventures" is each individual session we get to play; it's all one continuous adventure. The adventure is the players(not the pcs, but the actual players) discovering my world and interacting with it. Without their direct interaction, there is no game. As much effort as I put into the campaign setting it is nothing without someone else playing in it and finding their own adventure. 

"It's my job to present the setting, and most assuredly not to give the players an "adventure" to play through; the adventure is created by them."
Lance Duncan gets it. 

Take all that in and you won't need another long-winded, digression-filled scrawl of text from me. I mean, I'll keep writing them (because I'm bat-shit crazy), but you won't need them.

Remember this old post? Yeah, I said making dungeons was the "hack" approach to playing D&D, and promised I'd write a follow-up explaining what you needed to do for an "advanced" campaign. And then I never came back to the subject. *sigh* Because I'm busy and I suck, all right?!

But now I don't even need to write that post, because Lance has spelled it all out for you:


This is what "advanced" D&D play is. It doesn't matter that Lance uses Mystara and (probably) some version of Basic D&D as a rule set for his game...he's still playing D&D in an advanced fashion. 

What do I mean by that? Look: the Basic sets (as has been well-documented elsewhere) were written and designed to INTRODUCE NEW PLAYERS to the foundational concepts of Dungeons & Dragons. Full stop...that's why Holmes wrote his book, that's why B/X was published, that's why BECMI was written. 

And AS SUCH they provide a method of play and procedure that allow players to dip their feet into the whole D&D thing. Here's a dungeon. Here's a wilderness. Here's some cheap-o rules for domain play and immortality quests (Mentzer's C and M sets).

Fine. Dandy. Great, even...D&D is a complex game and introductory rules are strongly recommended for new players. B/X taught me how to play D&D, too.

But that's only the opening move of the game. The TRUE game is the ADVANCED game, readily and headily described in Gygax's Dungeon Master Guide. The DMG discusses (explicitly and at great length) how to create campaigns and how to run campaigns, as well as providing a plentitude of specific ideas of the content one can put into their campaigns...from diseases and hirelings to politics and economics to legendary artifacts and relics.

It also (as I've noted before) provides precious little guidelines on how to create/write a an "adventure."

[still, that last bit makes sense when one considers the campaign to have moved out of the dungeon and into the wider world of the campaign. Which (duh) also explains why world building is so important, right? Yep, I just keep end up harping on the same stuff...]

Anyhoo. Lance has got the concept down. Doesn't matter that he's using Mystara as a world setting/map. Doesn't matter what rule set he's using (not much, anyway...). What matters is the way he uses them. 

All right...we'll cut this one short and sweet. Happy Thursday, folks.
; )

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

YOU Are The Story

Jeez Louise...so many topics to get to (none of which are OGL-related, thank goodness!) and so little time. I'm trying to write a damn blog post about an orc (not just any old orc, but a SPECIFIC orc), and then THIS comes up. Sheesh.

But it's (kind of) important. 

So, Adam (Barking Alien, for those in the know) posted a comment on my last post (Boring Old D&D) saying:
"It's posts like this that confuse me in regards to what it is you enjoy and why you enjoy it. You don't go in for the Story, Narrative driven games but 'it's not just about killing monster and taking stuff'. How does that work? 

"How do you have no story but it's not just a video game with paper and dice?"
For the record, this is (perhaps) the thousandth time BA and I have danced this little dance. He is very much of the (now old) New School of RPG game play...the kind that came out of Dragonlance and 2E-era D&D, the kind that in the '90s led to White Wolf games like Vampire and all its many imitators. Games that wanted to explore story and genre until birthing (and being killed by) the rise of the indie, Story Now (or Narrativist-oriented) games. For those of us who've been around since 1981 (and followed the evolution of the hobby), its pretty easy to recognize the foibles of 5E D&D as the second coming (and rebranding/marketing) of 2E AD&D. 

[that's probably a whole 'nother post. What'd I say? Too many topics these days. However, here's a hint: WotC/Hasbro's quest to "more monetize" the D&D brand has direct parallels with post-1985 TSR]

ANYway. Adam is no 'spring chicken.' He's been playing RPGs nearly as long (or perhaps longer) than I have. He came in with Basic...Holmes, if I remember correctly...long before Dragonlance. Certainly long before 2E. One might jump to the question, "Hey, why isn't this guy on the same page as JB? He's an old geezer...doesn't he have the same sensibilities?" Just remember: the story-centric "role playing" that followed Wargamers Gygax/Arneson initial creation was created by folks OLDER than us. The Hickmans are OLDER than me...they were married adults in their 20s when they were writing epic Dragonlance modules.  This is not an issue of age, generation, or "wargamer background."

[in case anyone's wondering, I don't have a wargaming background]

The way I see it, the problem here is one of confusion and misunderstanding. There is a (LARGE) segment of the hobby that sees RPGs as vehicles for "telling stories." That "telling stories" is the OBJECTIVE of play. "This game [insert name] allows you and your friends to tell stories, just like [insert favorite book, film, or genre one wishes to emulate]."

Before going any further, in this post you need to BREAK that presumption. Even if the game instructions SAY that's the objective of play, you need to nip that right in the bud because there's a good chance that A) the game writer had a poor understanding of what was going on, AND/OR B) was simply emulating prior games description of 'what an RPG is' when they wrote it.


Okay. Are we clear? Blank slate everyone? Now we can advance.

There ARE games on the market that are specifically designed to tell stories. Once Upon A Time is a good example. Story Cubes are another. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is yet another and also includes some elements of 'role-playing' in it. 

There are ALSO many RPGs (and pseudo-RPGs...like Fiasco) that have been published over the years that have the objective of telling stories, using recognizable RPG elements, that can somewhat succeed presuming everyone is on board with genre emulation. The Dying Earth RPG. My Life With Master. New Fire: Temikamatl. OrkWorld (maybe). Dust DevilsPrince Valiant. Maybe Amber Diceless. Christian Aldridge's Maelstrom (i.e. Story Engine) The degree to which the telling stories is supported by the game's mechanics (rules/systems) varies between games, but they are GENERALLY supportive of creating stories...in their particular genre...and they don't do much else. 

[there are other examples...really, too many to list]

Then there are...the other games. Games that are based on D&D concepts, mechanics, and play dynamics. "Role-playing games" they are called...games run and moderated by a game master while the other participants play the role of a single character. Games with explicitly stated (or else assumed) objectives of "telling a story." Of creating a narrative with a point to it. Because OTHERWISE the act of play is deemed to have no point or reason to play

Or, to use Adam's words, "How do you have no story but it's not just a video game with dice?"

This is coming at the game from the wrong angle. It is starting with the presumption that playing the game must be about something (it is), about something meaningful (it is), like creating a narrative with a plot a climax and heroic...or at least worthy...protagonists (it is not).  

Dungeons & Dragons was...originally...never about creating stories in the way an actual story telling game is designed. That doesn't mean stories didn't result from the antics of the players, stories that might emulate much of the genre books that inspired D&D (i.e. the infamous Appendix N). But any story creation was the by-product of play, not the point of play. The point of playing Dungeons & Dragons was playing Dungeons & Dragons.  And any textual statements to the contrary should be chalked up as either:
  1. a failure to understand/grasp the appeal of a very new, very unusual game by the original authors, AND/OR
  2. blatant lies and/or terrible attempts at marketing a game that was poorly understood even by its own publishers.
Later RPGs tried to take the "magic" of D&D into their own genres, settings, with tweaks to the system (as TSR did with Top Secret, Boot Hill, Gamma World, Star Frontiers, etc.). But for a number of reasons (which I might get to in a later post) these were LESS successful...and not just because people prefer elves and swords and magic. 

[like I said...needs its own post]

But SOME folks really still wanted elves and swords and magic but with something MORE. For the Hickmans, they had very specific design goals: they wanted objectives that weren't limited to pillaging and looting, they wanted an "intriguing story" that was "intricately woven into play itself," and they wanted scenarios that could be finished in an evening's play. When the Hickmans were hired by TSR, they incorporated these design priorities into their adventures and when those adventures were successful, the design priorities of the (for profit) company shifted to match.

And all the imitators of D&D followed suit.

Again, realize that creating a story was NEVER the "point of play" for the D&D game. The systems (i.e. rules) it has are there to facilitate playing D&D, not to facilitate "telling stories." People like playing D&D (it's why the game is so successful...and will be explained in that later post), just like people enjoy playing baseball or soccer despite there being no real "point" to the game. The point of play is the play of the game. You are not creating stories...you ARE the story. 

Some of the biggest name designers in the story-oriented RPG industry never understood this. Here's Mark Rein-Hagen, designer of Vampire: The Masquerade:
"I have always been in love with roleplaying. Slap-happy mad over it. Ever since that first Sunday afternoon when my father and I sat down with the church intern and played Dungeons & Dragons, it has been my passion....

"In short order we'd created our characters and begun our adventure. I rolled up a Dwarf and my father made a Cleric...we were prepared to encounter all manner of fell beasts and sinister mysteries, but not to be caught up by it the way we were. The adventure was called In Search of the Unknown. How apropos that title was I was not to realize until much later.

"After a few hours of play we found ourselves hopelessly lost due to a magical portal...(description of adventure follows)...I was so excited that I couldn't sit still whenever the gamemaster rolled the dice...and when we finally got out of the dungeon with our treasure and our lives intact, I raced around the house screaming with relief and exaltation.

"It was wonderful. It was exhausting. It was miles beyond any other experience I've ever had.

"In that afternoon I was transformed, elevated to a new plane. I had a profound, almost spiritual experience. My entire goal in roleplaying has been to once again visit that mystical garden in which I so enjoyed myself, and discover a means by which I might remain there...it is the sort of thing that changes a life.

"But the trouble is, it didn't happen every time I played. In fact, it didn't happen for a very long time...(long description of seven years of gaming, going from dungeon crawling to wilderness crawling to PVP to min-maximing munchkinism)...sure we had fun, but it wasn't exhilarating, it wasn't transforming, and it wasn't what I really wanted....

"Eventually, it grew altogether too wearisome, and I began to roleplay less and less. Roleplaying became a hollow experience, a sad reenactment of the rites of youth. 

"Then it suddenly happened again, while playing Runequest and exploring the ruins of Parvis. An experience just as intense and transforming as the first. All of a sudden I realized what I had been missing, and I was horrified. A skilled and intense gamemaster had brought back the magic.

"These two experiences are what, for me at least, define what roleplaying is about. Is is what attracts me, and continues to compel me."
[all excerpt taken from The Players Guide for V:TM, essay: "A Once Forgotten Dream," copyright 1991]

That's not the end of Rein-Hagen's essay, as he goes on to explain his thoughts about how to create that exciting, transformative experience in your own games. He arrives at the wrong (practical) conclusion despite having the right answers. He gives four simple points to follow, none of which require one to play a "deeply personal," "intense," "story focused game" like Vampire: The Masquerade:
  1. Make you mind as open and receptive as you possibly can
  2. Believe in the world and scenario created by the game master
  3. Identify with your character (the character is your avatar for interacting with the world)
  4. Exercise (grow/develop) your imagination
Of course, all that is just player-facing advice (this is the advice section in the PLAYERS Guide, after all). The part that he glossed over...or ignored/forgot/discarded...was the most important revelation of his essay: All of a sudden I realized what I had been missing, and I was horrified. A skilled and intense gamemaster had brought back the magic.

It's not about creating a story...it's about experiencing the fantasy. And to do that requires a skilled, intense, and committed GM...and players who are open, receptive, and committed to operating in the GM's world. When THAT happens...whether you're playing D&D, RuneQuest, Vampire, whatever...THEN you're getting the point of play. The point of play is the experience of playing. YOU are the story.
: )

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Boring Old D&D

Dennis commented thusly on my last blog post:
"This week, my older boy and I started playing a campaign dungeon crawl board game. My friend, the game host Adam, the other adult player Emily, and I were discussing RPGs at our lunch break. Adam was telling us how he's usually uncomfortable with RPGs because he's not really into "doing voices" or trying to think like a fantasy person. He's much more into the puzzle-solving, tactical decisions, and finding ways to gain advantage from the rules side of game play. Hence his preference to play these sorts of games that sort of mimic D&D play, but with just the interaction with the rules and the current state of play to worry about. 

"I think he would 100% agree with this blog post, and honestly, I agree too. Knowing the rules, including the in-game lore that comes baked into the rules, is not destructive metagaming at all. It's good game play. 

"He was curious about how someone could play the same game for decades and not get tired of the rules, though!"
[emphasis added by Yours Truly]

Ah, yes. Boring old D&D, right? Let's get down to it. 

I'll start with this: my kids have been playing more video games lately than I like, which is probably about a quarter of what their friends play. They have Nintendo Switches with a couple-three games, the main one of which they play being Minecraft, a game that shares a lot of its play elements with old style (if Basic) D&D. Prior to this Christmas, they'd shared a single Switch, but my daughter received her own as a gift, and now they're able to do much more...cooperative play, for example, or networking with friends who own their own consoles. 

Yesterday, Diego asked if he could download Fortnite, a game that has been all the rage with his classmates the last year or two. Sofia asked if she could download Roblox, a game that is popular with kids in her class (and which I remember, was very big with Diego's classmates when they were Sofia's age). I told them both that I would "think about it," balancing the pros (21st century social networking and friendship building) with the cons (stunted development of mind/imagination as your entertainment is piped directly into your brain). I'm still thinking about it.

Video games are a vice. They can be addictive, they can lead to obsession. Are they as destructive as, say, alcohol or drugs or pornography or caffeine? Probably not...but they are damaging. And the damage they can do, minor though it is, can hit you in multiple ways from multiple angles. Relationships. Health. Mind. Maturation. I don't let my kids drink booze or coffee or surf porn or smoke...as a parent, why should I not police their gaming?  

D&D is not a board game (duh, says the choir I'm preaching to...just hold on). Yes, "duh," you say, no shit Sherlock, D&D isn't a board game.And yet there are plenty of folks, including longtime RPGers who've left D&D play, or who only play later edition D&D who look at the game I play and say, "sure, it's not a board game, but it's not much more than that, is it?" Guys (and Gals) who see the thing in the most simplistic of terms:
  • Kill monsters (roll-roll-roll)
  • Get treasure (count points)
  • "Level up"
  • Rinse
  • Repeat
How boring is THAT? Where are the bells? Where are the whistles? You play a fighter? So, you're a walking stack of hit points with a backpack to put treasure? And a sword and heavy armor? And all you do is charge and roll a D20 and play a game of dicing for attrition so that you can get an abstract "score" of points based on g.p. value in order to gain MORE hit points? How is that even FUN?  Didn't the whole novelty of the thing wear off after the first couple sessions? 

Hell, didn't the novelty wear off after the first couple of encounters?

And for some folks, the answer to that question must be a resounding YES, as evidenced by their own actions...their leaving of the hobby, or their moving on to other games, or their need to make D&D about something other than the game (It's about the "role-playing!" It's about the story making! It's about the strategy of character builds! It's about the camaraderie of friends playing together! It's about annoying the other players at the table and doing PVP! Etc.). The game...as written, as designed...is simply TOO SIMPLISTIC, even if you play the "advanced" version with its extra options and tacked-on complication and fiddly-ness.

For those people...well, I can only imagine what they must think of me. I mean, what do you think about a guy who's been playing the same game for 40+ years? Haven't you explored (or drawn) enough dungeon corridors? Haven't you found (or given out) enough treasure chests? Haven't you killed (or run encounters with) enough imaginary monsters? Isn't it BORING? 

Why not just play Sniper 3D (a stupid video game that I currently have loaded on my phone)? All the mindless bloodshed and violence, all the imaginary gold coins and points (and leveling), all the new gear upgrades and none of the WORK it takes to play (or DM) a game of Dungeons & Dragons. Right? If what you want is BORING OLD D&D why not just get an app that lets you murder-hobo in the free minutes that you can sneak during the course of your humdrum day? Take out some aggression on imagined foes! Feel good (*ding!*) about another "achievement" earned!


For all the imagination I see on display these days -- the huge numbers of tabletop games and RPG products on the market (both digitally and in print), the huge numbers of video games on the market, the huge numbers of TV shows and films on the various channels, networks, and streaming services -- for all the imagination I see on display these days, there is a surprising lack of imagination on display. 

Old D&D isn't boring. YOU are boring. Or, to borrow and repurpose a pithy phrase from a shopping bag picked up at a bookshop some years back: "If you think playing old D&D is boring, you're doing it wrong."  If you're tired of the game, you're not really playing the game to its potential.

Most games of the "board" variety, like most consumable entertainment "product" (movies, TV shows, video games, etc.) are FINITE. They have limits; they have boundaries. They END. You can take a game like, say, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and play through it 3-4 times before it gets tiresome. Other games, like Red Dead Revolver might only be worth a single playthrough. Films and TV series are similar (some are worth a re-watch)...same with books and (probably) story arc campaigns of the type published by WotC.

But unlike these forms of entertainment, D&D is ENDLESS and INFINITE. For all practical purposes, anyway...there is (maybe) a limit to the human imagination, but in some 5,000 years of recorded history we haven't yet reached it. People who focus on the "killing" and "looting" aspects of the game are, in fact, missing the point of play: these are mechanical elements of game play (as is the Vancian magic system) that enable D&D to run. They are not the objective of game play anymore than the engine of a car is the "objective" (or point) of owning a vehicle.

Does it really not make sense? I'll try to clarify even more:
  • D&D is a fantasy adventure game...it provides (imaginary) peril and danger and as a game requires rules (systems, mechanics) for modeling its inherent violence. There are LOTS of good reasons why the system works as well as it does (that's for another post), but you NEED the system in order to run a game of fantasy adventure with perils, dangers, and inherent violence.
  • So why play a game of "fantasy adventure?" Well, I've addressed that before in a different long-winded post. Rereading it...well, I don't think I could restate things much better but (for purposes of this post) I'd just emphasize that experiencing fantasy adventure is kind of the opposite of experiencing boredom.
My daughter and I spoke at length yesterday about the kinds of games she enjoys playing (because she complained she doesn't like the same games Diego and I do, and neither he or I want to play her type of games). I found that the games SHE enjoys playing on the playground at school are (mostly) variations of video games her friends play, imaginary games based firmly in the gameplay of games like Doors, or Choo-Choo Charles, or Minecraft. Often, one or more participants will take the role of narrator, describing what occurs while the other kids react within the context of the game...it is imaginary play based on video games without the video game console.  

[not much different from how my friends and I played at her age...except that we were running D&D without books and dice]

The human imagination is an amazing thing, and (in conjunction with other likeminded individuals) can provide hours of entertainment without the need to resort to dice or rulebooks or gaming consoles. Boundless as it is, however, it requires grist to mill and fuel to go (I've written about this before, though it was with regard to artwork)...and here, HERE, is the main, major difference between "boring old D&D" and any number of other finite, consumable forms of entertainment: it encourages (some would say requires) you to go out and expand and explore and research and fill your mind and imagination

Instead of stunting growth and development, D&D (done right) increases growth and development.

Finite, closed system games (like all video games) do not do this. To build a world (as a Dungeon Master must) requires you to study geography, history, politics, philosophy, religion, economics, military warfare, agriculture...whatever!...all to varying degrees depending on what points you are emphasizing at the moment. Depending on what part of your imagination you need to expand for the requirements of your campaign.

And the exploration of the world (which is the part of the players) will expand their own imagination and understanding, even assuming they DON'T participate in outside research, because of the necessity of reacting to and meeting the challenges the Dungeon Master offers them.

I can't praise it enough. 

Closed system games don't offer this "mind expansion." Instead, they offer the opportunity for system mastery...board games, played enough, will evolve competent strategies, opening moves, specific tactical plays and functions that randomizers can only somewhat mitigate...in the end, one hopes for adequate opponents to offer challenge.  Understanding this, I see why a game like Magic: The Gathering maintains its popularity...it is endlessly evolving, endlessly offering NEW tweaks and forms of system to master. For the aficionado of competitive MTG play, any ennui is dispelled with each new series issue.

Old D&D, of the kind I play, does NOT evolve...au contraire, the more I tweak the rules, the more I end up going back to the tried and true default systems (more often than not). Instead, it is the PARTICIPANTS of the game (the DM, the players) who end up evolving. I am a different Dungeon Master today than I was a year ago, let alone three-four decades ago. Likewise, I'm a vastly different player (very much improved) than I once was. Very much improved...and loving it.

Tired of the rules? Tired of boring old D&D gaming? 

No, not at all. My interest and excitement only deepens the more I engage with it. Many long-lasting games have simple rules that are easy to master. It's important not to conflate "complexity" with "depth." The rules are simple so that they don't get in the way of the game. The game play is what makes D&D the King of Games. 
: )

Friday, January 20, 2023

Metagaming & Myopia

From the D&D Basic set, Sample Expedition (Moldvay, page B59):
Morgan: "...I'll search through the rags. Anything that looks like a cloak or boots?"

DM: "...Morgan, you do find a pair of old boots, but nothing like a cloak."

Morgan: "Fred will dump the silver and look for hidden compartments in the box. I'll try on the boots to see if I move silently -- we could use a pair of elven boots!"

DM: "...Morgan seems to be moving very quietly."

Morgan: "GREAT!"

The game of Dungeons & Dragons is a game. I know I've written that many times before; I know that other people have expounded on this idea many times before. It's not a new statement.

And yet, folks are constantly forgetting the fact.

"Your character wouldn't know that!" How many times has this phrase (or a variation of it) been uttered at the gaming table. How many times have DMs (or "helpful" PCs) policed would-be actions in the name of preventing a player from metagaming?

Per Ye Old Wikipedia, "metagaming" (i.e. approaching a game from outside the normal rule structure of the game in question) as applied to role-playing games
...often refers to having an in-game character act on knowledge that the player has access to but the character should not. For example, tricking Medusa to stare at a mirror when the character has never heard of Medusa and would not be aware of her petrifying stare.
In the above example from Moldvay's Basic, the Morgan's player is metagaming: she (the player) realizes there is a magic item called elven boots. She understands she is playing a game where players find magical treasures in dungeons. When she discovers an old pair of boots in a locked chest, she tries them to see if they function like the magical item...she uses player knowledge to inform and direct her character's action. Same as the player trying to trick Medusa into viewing her own reflected gaze.

Metagaming in roleplaying games is, generally, frowned upon. I was reminded of that recently when listening to the excellent first episode of the The Classic Adventure Gaming Podcast...a bunch of FAGs ("fantasy adventure gamers") discussing the fundamentals of fantasy adventure gaming, i.e. old edition D&D gaming.  These worthies bemoaned attempts to curtail metagaming as disrupting player agency...a bad thing in their estimation. A good example they cited was the DM disallowing a player from using flaming oil on a troll until AFTER seeing the thing regenerate from wounds sustained. 

As a longtime FAG myself, I found myself in total agreement with these youngsters (pretty sure I'm older than all of them...EOTB only started playing circa '87). But I wanted to consider WHY that is. I may be a cranky geezer, but I'm not so clueless as to believe I'm in the majority opinion here. What's the pushback against metagaming...and why do I find myself taking the opposite stance?

Back to wikipedia (*sigh*) where I find that the dislike of metagaming stems from two main issues:
  1. It upsets the suspension of disbelief.
  2. It affects game balance.
I'll address the second issue first. Metagaming for advantage has a loooong history, and applies to all sorts of competitive endeavors, not just roleplaying. If an umpire is calling pitches tight, you can draw more walks by making yourself smaller at the plate; if your boss cares more about friendship than performance when it comes promotion time, you go out of your way to be a "buddy." 

Gaming the system in this manner is certainly a form of cheating, but whether it is perceived as such is a matter of degree. Stealing signs in baseball wasn't illegal until 2017...and only then became illegal to use electronic devices to aid in sign stealing. Spreading rumors to your boss about a rival employee (in order to raise the boss's comparative estimation of yourself) would definitely be underhanded behavior.

But in a game like Dungeons & Dragons...a cooperative game of survival...what's the issue?  So what if the players know they need fire to defeat the troll? Oil, torches, fireballs...these are finite resources. The DM's ability to apply challenge (create monsters, etc.) is infinite. Why would a DM sweat players finding ways to circumvent challenge? Win or lose, the DM is going to responsible for creating NEW challenges anyway (in an on-going campaign). 

"Okay, JB, sure...but what about breaking the game? What about players that use the rules to their advantage such that there's no challenge AT ALL, EVER, EVER AGAIN?!"  Um...not sure what game you're playing there, pal. I guess I'd suggest you need to play something more robust...like 1st edition AD&D. In all my years of playing, I've never seen someone 'break' the system...and I've seen some pretty munchkin-y attempts.  The game scales amazingly well.

If the players aren't challenged by the game, it's the fault of the Dungeon Master, not "the meta."

So, let's look at the other complaint: upsetting the suspension of disbelief. Breaking the "immersion." Throwing sand in the well-oiled gears of the "role-playing" machine.


D&D is a fantasy adventure game, i.e. a game that allows one to experience fantasy adventures. I know it is a "role-playing" game, but the role-playing is not the point of play...it is the medium through which the "play" gets done. You have a role to play. You are the fighter. Or the cleric. Or the All-Powerful Dungeon Maestro (trademark pending). What you are allowed to do in the game is based on the role you are playing. If you're a fighter, you don't get to turn undead or cast spells. If you are a player character, you don't get to design the dungeon. Got it?

"Immersion" (which I suppose could be loosely defined as "losing oneself in imagined escapist fantasy") DOES occur in the process of playing D&D, and for many participants...perhaps most participants...it is the main draw and attraction of the hobby. 

[I can tell you that my wife strongly dislikes playing RPGs because she is incredibly uncomfortable with the immersion experience: for her, it is NOT fun...rather it is disconcerting]

But in my experience, immersion does not come as the result of playing a role, or a character, or attending to one's background, backstory, character arc, etc.  Instead, immersion ONLY comes from being directly engaged with the gameplay at the table. That requires interest in the material and pressure applied by the circumstances of the game, as facilitated by both the DM and the system mechanics.

Now, I understand there are LOTS of human beings out there who don't give a rip about armor-clad, sword-swinging elves confronting slimy monsters in underground caves while looking for gold and jewels. I get that! Just like there are LOTS of people (like me) who care absolutely zero about whether or not they can put a round rubber ball through a netted hoop 10' off the ground. Different strokes for different folks. Hard to be engaged in a game whose premise you're just not into.

But it's the play of the game you are interested in that creates the immersive experience, the time loss where you look up and say "we've been playing for HOW long?"  You might get a kick out of pretending (internally or externally) that you are Michael Jordan, LeBron James, etc., but it's the action of playing basketball that draws you in, not the play-acting on the court. Likewise, I might enjoy putting on an accent and referring to myself as Wendell the Wondrous Wizard at the game table...but ACTING like an imaginary person is NOT the game. Confronting the challenge of the fantasy adventure at hand is the game.

Metagaming, then, does not discourage immersion...and, in many cases, can lead to deeper immersion as it allows players to more actively engage with the material at hand:

"Oh My God: a TROLL? We need fire to kill these guys!" "Who has the oil?" "I only have two flasks left and we're going to need the lantern to get out of the dungeon!" "I still have a light spell left." "Okay, we can risk it...see, this is why you save the fireball spell!"

D&D is a game. It is not a film, not a story. It does not require suspension of disbelief, because the immersion that occurs does not come (as with a film) from sitting down and passively absorbing the story that is fed through our senses. The immersion comes from participation and active engagement...as with any game.

No DM should worry about metagaming. Just worry about building the world...the game parts, run correctly, will take care of themselves. 
: )

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Kid's Birthday

Tomorrow is Diego's birthday. I am a bit stumped what to get him. 

Back in November, I ordered a very nice Blood Bowl team that I'd hoped to have assembled and painted for him by Christmas...unfortunately, it was coming from over seas and has YET to arrive (just received a notice from the post office...looks like it won't get here till next week). Had thought that might make a decent b-day gift but...c'est la vie.

SO...what to get, what to get. Hasn't helped that both kids have been getting over colds the last 3-4 days...Diego just went back to school today...and my time to shop (even on-line) has been limited. No way to get something here mail order by manana.

Any suggestions?

Oh-oh...other kid's awake...gotta' get her ready for school. Later!

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Legal Musings

Back when (the American version of) The Office was running, I made every effort to catch every episode (which was back before I had cable and access to DVR technology). I found a YouTube link to what is one of my absolute favorite scenes in the entire series:

For context, if I'm remembering correctly, Michael had left the Dunder-Mifflin company over being reigned in by on-site corporate stooge (Charles) and then formed his own paper company (with Pam and Ryan) in Jerry Macquire-esque manner. The D-M corporates confronting Michael in this scene have decided it is easier and more convenient to buy out Michael, ending his enterprise, rather than compete with his tiny company in an already-shrinking market.

The analogy of this scene doesn't map 100% to the RPG market, but there are lessons to be learned. 

Copyright law, in its current form, is pretty much an American invention...despite its origins in England/Europe...and was structured to serve an American objective: encourage industry. If anyone were allowed to copy, distribute, and profit from a creative individual's work (without paying the initial creative) than what incentive would there be for the creative in question to, well, create? Why would ANYONE be bothered to put in the effort and sweat of creation just to see someone else, with an eye for profit and a better marketing team, steal your work and reap the benefits?

The ability to copyright one’s work exists to incentivize creators to create.

But while holding a copyright provides some protections versus would-be thieves and liars (i.e. “plagiarist profiteers”), it is not an all-encompassing carte blanche. The term “fair use” in copyright law is (yet again) a concept originating in America designed to encourage and incentivize industry, rather than stifle such possibilities because of the fear of litigation. Fair use is the reason the Margaret Mitchell estate (Gone with the Wind) was unable to stop the publication of The Wind Done Gone; fair use is the reason Oracle was unable to stop Google from using Oracle's Java API code in Android phones.

Two things to always consider: 
  1. copyright law protects the expression of an idea, not an idea itself
  2. copyright law is designed to promote creative industry
Copyright law is different from trademark law. You can't write a game and call it Dungeons & Dragons; "Dungeons & Dragons" is a trademarked property. But trademarks mainly apply to brands and logos: "Dungeons & Dragons" (and "D&D") are trademarks of Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro. "Wizards of the Coast" and "Hasbro" are ALSO trademarks of Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro.

"Mind flayer," on the other hand, is not trademarked property.

If I write an adventure that includes an encounter with a mind flayer, am I infringing on WotC's copyright? So long as I don't include the creature's stat block (i.e. the expression of the idea of "mind flayer"), then probably not. Could WotC sue me over the use of their intellectual property ("mind flayer") without permission? They could, but they wouldn't have much of a case: the main argument they could make is that I am siphoning off their business, which is a bogus claim for a number of reasons, the main one of which is this:  WotC/Hasbro does not hold a monopoly on adventure writing.

Again, copyright law exists to encourage creative industry. Fair use exists to encourage creative industry. My use of a mind flayer in an adventure does not prevent WotC/Hasbro from selling books; on the contrary, if it is a popular/successful publication it probably encourages consumers to purchase more books in order to make use of it. And it does not prevent WotC/Hasbro from publishing their own adventures which might include mind flayers...it does not replace/supplant their ability to do business in this vein, for a number of reasons that should be rather obvious.

[okay, just in case it's NOT obvious: WotC/Hasbro would have to somehow prove that they have sole rights and privilege to publish D&D adventures, which would go against decades of examples to the contrary and would also be the same as proving they have the right to a monopoly...which courts in the USA tend to look down on]

But what if I wanted to write a supplement called "All About The Mind Flayer" describing the creatures' culture, society, and statistics; creating an entire variant background and description of how to use the monster in one's game? A definitive collection of gameable content; an "alternate history" of mind flayers, if you will...would THAT seek to subvert and replace a key intellectual property of WotC/Hasbro? Would it be perceived as undermining their business? Could the Hasbro corporation file a lawsuit against me?

Let's be clear: persons and corporate entities can ALWAYS sue you. 

Doesn't mean their lawsuit will be successful. And D&D has been explicit in every iteration that they fully expect owners of the property (Dungeon Masters) to feel free to create their own worlds, modify the game to suit their needs, change it as they see fit.

Yes, JB, sure...but monetize those changes? Isn't that infringing on the company's copyright?

Remember: fair use. A doctrine established to prevent the stifling of innovation and the discouragement of creation for purposes of industry (our delightful capitalist society). In this particular situation, it's instructive to check out the landmark case of Sega v. Accolade. Despite it being with regard to video games, many parallels could be drawn in a hypothetical legal battle with the publishers of Dungeons & Dragons. In brief:
  • Accolade (video game maker) reverse-engineered Sega technology to create video game cartridges that were compatible with Sega's new Genesis console, circumventing Sega licensing.
  • Sega sued receiving an injunction against Accolade, citing in part Accolade's unlicensed use of Sega's (copyrighted) computer code in their game design.
  • Accolade appealed and won based on fair use doctrine; the injunction was lifted, Sega was forced to pay the cost of the appeal, and precedent was set for decades to come including that functional principals of computer software cannot be protected by copyright law.
The case is worth reading (and studying), not the least of which for its later ramification on trademark law. Are "functional principals" of computer software much different from the "functional principals" of a roleplaying game? That's something that would need to be decided in court, but given the plethora of RPGs that have made it to market using similar language and terms as D&D (and which haven't been sued to death), my guess is: not bloody likely.

[and Hasbro could hardly argue an independently published book "Compatible with the World's Most Popular RPG!" tarnishes their trademark brand. Even a low quality product is just more evidence of the ubiquitousness of their product. Apologies for the digression]

However, in the end, the real question is always one about MONEY. How much money gets made by independent publishers? How much money does the corporation lose because of third-party publishers? How much money would it cost them to litigate every perceived infringement (not just issue a "cease & desist" notice) given the doctrine of fair use and the potential impact to the company's bottom line?


It's difficult to imagine that Little Ol' Me might ever fall into the crosshairs of Hasbro's corporate attorneys given how little money I represent, especially when I've gone out of my way to NOT use their registered trademarks (or "mind flayers") in my published books. I mean...really? To paraphrase Michael Scott, I can just start a new game company tomorrow...I have LOTS of names for game companies.

But that's ME...a hobbyist game publisher. I don't need to sell books to live...to eat or to pay rent. I do it because it's enjoyable and it's a creative outlet and because it's put a little extra money in my pocket, somewhat validating my participation in the hobby. Other people...people more financially invested or leveraged in the hobby...might be a LOT more "risk averse" than I am.

Thing is: I AM risk averse. I've been sued before (an old medical bill that wasn't covered by my insurance went too long overpaid when I was living in Paraguay for three years...eventually got straightened out); not a pleasant experience. I spent 15 years working in a field that involved interpreting, establishing, modifying, and enforcing superior court and administrative orders. My advice to folks has always been to stay on the right side of the law and work within a system, rather than trying to circumvent it...keep your nose clean, in other words.

And, in my estimation, that's exactly what I'm doing. 

I don't use the OGL in my books. I've entered no licensing agreement with WotC/Hasbro, free or otherwise. My books use my own text, copyright me. Many concepts and ideas are inspired by and/or borrowed from other games and RPGs (as well as works of fiction). I don't plagiarize. I try to give credit for inspiration and ideas when and if it is due, but it's impossible to cite ALL the creative influences on one's work. When my work is compatible with an existing work or game, my hope is that it will encourage people to play that particular game...raising all tides, so to speak. 

That's the biz, as I see it. And while 'good intentions' really don't matter (certainly not compared to money, sadly) I am still participating in creative industry...exactly the kind of creative industry that copyright law is designed to encourage and incentivize. 

Okay...that's enough for the moment.

Friday, January 13, 2023

Fair Use Friday

Anyone looking to stream a terrific interview should check out the Roll For Combat guys' YouTube video with Ryan Dancey. Yes, it's two hours and twenty minutes long...time you could spend watching a film or something. I listened to the thing while doing household chores and waiting in my car at (a very rainy) soccer practice. It's fascinating, not only discussing the legal ramifications of the original OGL, but also the history, purpose, and intention of it, why it came about, how it affected the gaming industry, possible consequences of WotC/Hasbro's attempt to "revoke it," and reasons why they would torpedo themselves (and upset their fan base) taking the actions they are.

If you're a person interested in the nuts-and-bolts of the industry behind the hobby, it's very good stuff.  Certainly more informative and interesting than anything I could write about the subject myself.

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Live-Action D&D Television

[was going to write something about copyright law, fair use, and game "licenses," but everyone's sick of that stuff, right? Maybe next week...]

So...we watch a lot of TV at my house.

Too much, I'm sure...at least by the standards of a guy who spent several years (in his twenties) not even owning a television, and not missing it one bit. But the wife enjoys it, the kids enjoy it, and it's a (lazy) way to all spend time together as a family...huddled around the video altar for an hour or two every evening. 

The current slate of programming isn't all that great...Wednesday was the last decent series we finished which, for me, was kind of a "light" (or kid-friendly) version of Sabrina. Yellowstone is what the wife likes to watch after the kids go to bed and it's...fine. It's just the same old 'powerful family drama' thing again (see Sopranos, House of the Dragon, Empire, Billions, etc., etc.), just in a different setting.

[I will say that the Kayce character is the most 'Montana' of all the characters written for the series...his attitude, physicality, manner of speaking, way of thinking is very much like any one of my uncles. They don't wear cowboy hats in Missoula, though...I'm guessing that's more of a Bozeman/Wyoming thing]

Current shows watched with the kids are multiple. Ghosts is pretty funny, and while some of the humor is too risque for my children, most of that is pretty over their heads. The latest install of The Mysterious Benedict Society has, I think, ended(?) and it kind of went out with a whimper instead of a bang, though that show has some of the most likable kids in television. National Treasure (based on the Disney film franchise) is...ugh...I'm not a fan. The main character is pretty cool/interesting but all her friends are SO DUMB and the plot is so contrived and filled with coincidence it's like reading a BAD Nancy Drew story (though IS there such a thing as a 'bad Nancy Drew' story...?). I find myself cringing a lot. Some of the Mesoamerican stuff is good...and some of it shows the writers could stand to do a little more research. Yeah...but the kids really dig it (it's a Disney show).

Then there's Willow...or as we like to call it: "D&D the Series." We just started this one last week or so (after rewatching the 1988 film) and, as of last night, we're all caught up with the series (I think the season finale is tonight, but we probably won't watch it till tomorrow). 

Oh, boy...where to start?

George Lucas originally conceived of the idea for Willow circa 1972...long before D&D was a pop culture phenomenon. His idea was to create a kids' fantasy film that (as with Star Wars) incorporated a plethora of tropes from myth and folklore: fairies, brownies, witches, knights, trolls, etc. The idea was always to have a little person as the lead (original title: The Munchkins) as a literal interpretation of the small guy going off into the big world of adventure. Lucas met Warwick Davis when doing Return of the Jedi (the actor's first role...he played Wicket the ewok) who would become a staple figure in later SW films. In 1987 Davis was offered the role of Willow; he was 17 at the time.

Having had a chance to rewatch the film twice now in the last year (coincidentally we showed Willow to the kids over the summer, before we were even aware the series was going to be a thing), I'd call it cute, light-hearted fare, typical of the late-80s and a cut above most kids' fantasy films not involving Tim Burton or Jim Henson. In fact, it might have been the LAST (halfway-)decent live-action film featuring swords and sorcery until the 2000s. 

[when was Legend done? 1985? Yeah, same with Ladyhawke. Highlander, Labyrinth, and Big Trouble in Little China were all 1986; The Princess Bride was '87. After that, there's nothing worth mentioning till Jackson's LotR (2001). Maybe the 13th Warrior in '99? Not much magic in it, though. I LIKE Erik the Viking, but that's more parody and snark than earnest fantasy]

SO...fast foward to the new Willow which is, yet again, another example of Hollywood nostalgia-mining IP from decades past to appeal to the hearts (and wallets) of aging geezers like myself. 

TV's Best Beard
It's...okay. The casting is pretty good. Warrick Davis, veteran actor, is a highlight; so is Amar Chadha-Patel (whose physical appearance will henceforth be the basis for ALL future D&D characters of Yours Truly, regardless of class). Tony Revolori is (surprisingly) growing on me. Elle Bamber and Ruby Cruz seem...fine, I guess (as actors), but their characters (especially "Kit") are written in a way that I find extremely obnoxious and grating. 

*sigh* I'm just not into teenage angst...and it is (for me) incredibly unbelievable given the circumstances in which the characters find themselves. They're just one step removed from "I miss my cell phone!"

Erin Kellyman seems to have already been typecast (after watching her in Solo and Falcon/Winter Soldier) and her emotional range seems...short. I can't tell if she's limited by the writing or her ability; probably a bit of both. But mainly her character ("Jade") is just...boring.

[I also hate Jade's sword; every time I see it on screen I just think of how unbalanced it looks and how many fingers she'd lose trying to wield it. Like, ALL her fingers]

The bit parts and cameos, however, are stellar: Joanne Whalley, Hannah Waddingham (!), Christian Slater (!!), Kevin Pollack, and Julian Glover all make the most of their brief appearances in the show. Adwoah Aboah, too, isn't half-bad, especially considering (I think) that this is her first on-screen acting role (?!). Every time some random human character appears on-screen with more than a few lines of dialogue/action, it's generally a much needed shot-in-the-arm for the series.

The show, Willow, is D&D. But not the good kind of D&D.

"I was once a paladin..."
(yeah, back before
your alignment change)
It was my (non-gamer) wife who first pointed this out to us: "This is just like Dungeons & Dragons!" You have the adventuring party composed of a pretty standard lineup (a couple fighters, a couple spell-casters, a thief, etc) going on an adventure, fighting monsters, looking for treasure, delving dungeons, finding secret doors, facing traps and obstacles, etc.  The classes and tropes are easily recognizable. First level adventurers off on their first real adventure.

But this isn't father's (or geezer blog writer's) D&D. This is D&D with DRAMA, where every character has a "secret past" (backstory!) or closeted skeleton or SOMEthing that is going to get worked out 'on-screen' over the course of the series. 

Because the STORY by itself (um, something-something about saving the world) isn't COMPELLING (or compelling enough) by itself. No. We need to resolve our unrequited love and deal with our murdered siblings and find out about our secret family members and blah, blah, blah.

Hey, remember the original film? Remember the backstory for Madmartigan? Or Sorsha? Or the titular Willow himself? Remember the film explaining why this farmer was interested in becoming a sorcerer? Or how he learned to be conjurer of cheap tricks? Or why his neighbors didn't like him despite him (apparently) being a normal hardworking family man with a decent farm, a doting wife, happy little children? Remember where he received his unbounded courage and tenacity and moral compass? 

No? Oh, yeah: because there wasn't any. Neither was there for ANY of the characters. You have a character, you have a situation (the plot of the film) and GO. Is Sorsha trying to work out mother-daughter issues with evil queen Bavmorda, some rivalry with General Kael, or moon over some lost lover or other? Perhaps. If she is (and that's all certainly possible for the actor to keep in the back of her mind) it isn't played out on the screen...it is simply background motivation that directs the character's actions.

Here (in the series) we have all this...um..."stuff," that is constantly being dragged out and examined and being discussed and worked on. And I suppose that if the series was about one featured character or protagonist that would be okay. But it's not about a single character...it's an ensemble cast, with six or seven (depending on whether or not you count the brother/prince) main figures, all of whom are (more-or-less) on the same team. 

So...this need to share spotlight time (and film minutes) on their various mental and emotional turmoils just feels like...I don't know...some sort of narcissism.

[which, you know, is kind of emblematic of late edition D&D ain't it?]

That and the anachronisms inherent in the show. Not just the dialogue which (again) sounds like typical teenage petulance and smack talk but the damn music. No need for a sweeping, epic score transporting us to a fantasy world like, say, Game of Thrones or Rings of Power or...heck...the original film Willow on which the series is based. Crimson & Clover? Enter Sandman? Good Vibrations?!

Um...okay. So this is a teen fantasy show that would have been at home on the CW ten years ago. Except with a bigger budget.

"Dude, JB is as big a curmudgeon about his fantasy television shows as he is about his D&D! Hey, Old Man, there's more than one 'right way' to create elf-magic-fiction content!" Sure, yep, absolutely. But, watching Willow would be a lot less jarring, less cringe-worthy experience if expectations weren't set based on the very IP the showrunners decided to mine.

[heck, I'm not even dinging the show for sometimes poor pacing and occasional crap editing. Well, I wasn't till now]

"JB, that Willow movie was 35 years ago! Expectations have changed about YA fantasy! Why do you think D&D had to evolve?!"

Mm-hmm. Indeed. Welcome to fantasy in 2023.

Now, I realize that I am hopelessly behind the times when it comes to modern (well, post-modern) sensibilities, but for me...geezer that I am...adventure fantasy is about something like escapism from the petty squabbles and dramas of daily life. Take the character "Kit" for example and her quest to find her father (which seems far more important to her than her initial quest to find her brother)...I'd say there's more than a few people out there who have had their fathers exit their lives in some fashion, and hardly ever is it for some 'heroic' reason. It might be inoperable cancer or a sudden heart attack that leaves a kid half-orphaned at the age of 12 (as happened to my buddy, Matt) . It might be the guy walking out on the family with no warning (as happened to my brother and I). Hell, I know two different guys (John and Ben) who BOTH had their fathers leave their mothers for some hippy-dippy commune before either was born. 

This kind of thing happens. Worse things happen with parents. I knew a guy who had a real problem with his mother because she sold his younger sister to a couple guys in order to finance her crack habit. There's some fucked up shit in this world...lots of reasons to want to escape reality for an hour or two on a regular basis. Do I need to have a fantasy setting, with magic and monsters, in order to deep dive the emotional wreck of human relationships? Isn't there therapy for that? Support groups to join? Books to read? 

How about a subplot related to the story at hand: for example, Kit has been trained to be a warrior/knight type but pretty obviously has been pretty sheltered up until the events of the story...how about dealing with the emotional baggage that comes with murdering sentient beings for the first time in her life.  She's having a semi-polite conversation with some hairy trolls one moment, and then whetting her blade in their lifeblood the next. And everything is still like "Oh no big deal. How can I get my romantic interest to not still be mad at me?" 

But, okay, maybe we want to de-emphasize the emotional consequences of murder and bloodletting in this "fun adventure fantasy." How about dealing with the issues of duty versus love with regard to her betrothal to a political ally who happens to be on the same adventure with her as with her lover. Instead, she pretty much ignores the man she's supposed to marry, as opposed to A) trying to get to know him, or B) arranging for some fatal "accident" that will remove an unwanted complication from her life. You know?

[can you tell I'm not a big fan of the writing?]

This is adolescent, narcissistic D&D. We are on an adventure, killing monsters, surviving dangers, and working on our (young adult) emotional baggage. We don't have to particularly get along or cooperate to survive because, you know, "plot immunity." Not a lot of fear or real stress, except for the stress of meeting expectations ("Will I ever learn magic? Jeez I was happier just baking muffins!"). This isn't swords & sorcery...it's High School Musical with Ren-Fair costumes and less singing. 

*sigh* I know...I'm an ass. My family's enjoying the show, and the thing has some stylish touches that are entertaining (really dig on the bits of psychedelia scattered about the series, as well as the occasional steampunk flourishes). But, for the most part, its style without substance. The substance of the show is...for my taste...rather bland. Not "vanilla" (pains have been taken to make the show very NON-vanilla in fantasy terms). But bland. 

Ah, well. One episode (I think) to go. We'll see if the finale changes my mind.